Round 14: Eels v Cowboys preview
Could the wooden spoon be confirmed as early as Round 14?
Our friends in the top end are set to be treated to an intriguing bottom-eight clash this Saturday evening as Darwin hosts the Eels and Cowboys in a match that could realistically see the wooden spoon assigned to the team in Blue and Gold with barely half the competition complete.
Firstly, we know that mathematics are still a long way from coming into the equation - and this very preview could be the mocker that sees the blue-and-gold push from also-rans to upset-merchants - but on current form it's difficult to see Parramatta picking up a minimum three or more wins between now and September to avoid the NRL's cellar. Manly and Canterbury are among their closest rivals, just four points (two wins) above them, but their laser-focus this week will need to be on the third team sitting on eight competition points - the Cowboys.
After a horror start to 2018 themselves, North Queensland have looked like a much better proposition in recent weeks, most recently accounting for Manly minus Origin stars last Thursday to deliver their fourth win of the campaign. So of the pair doing battle in the Northern Territory's capital this weekend, it's the Cowboys who look far more likely to deliver any sort of positive result.
The selections meanwhile, for the Cowboys at least, are a lottery. Named are Origin stars Michael Morgan, Gavin Cooper and Coen Hess, and all at least at the time of writing look likely to back up from the Maroons' opening game loss on Wednesday. Matt Scott (suspension) is back on deck in the front row, Morgan's return sees Coote pushed to the reserves, while Fensom and Lowe are benched as a result of Cooper and Hess coming back in.
Parramatta had plenty of reshuffles on Tuesday when their team was named but little is expected to change between now and kickoff, with Jarryd Hayne (hip) returning at centre, timely enough for Takairangi to shift to the second row to replace the suspended Tepai Moeroa. There are a host of other changes including Nathan Brown moving into the starting side, as well as co-captain Tim Mannah returning on the bench and Reed Mahoney debuting there as well.
These two teams have a very even record, with the Eels ahead by just one win 19 to 18 across 38 clashes, with one draw. A win for the Cowboys evens the ledger. The Cowboys have won the only battle between this pair at TIO Stadium, a 32-6 thumping in the corresponding round a year ago. Last time they met, the Cowboys disposed of a disappointing Parramatta in the Week 2 Semi Final as they continued their miracle run to the 2017 Grand Final.
Who to watch: It goes without saying there's plenty of pressure on Jarryd Hayne to help lift the Eels out of their doldrums as he returns from a hip injury. His signing in the off-season from the Titans was touted as a game-changer, the prodigal son returning home - but so far it's been littered with injury and underperformances. He has the ability to break a game open and we know his talent is there, he just needs to tap into it.
A lack of form and ability to consistently perform has seen regular fullback Lachlan Coote drop out of the side repeatedly this season (injury aside), but the result has been an opportunity for 22-year-old Te Maire Martin to step into the void. Coote's omissions have seen regular five-eighth Morgan switch to custodian, leaving the five-eighth spot open for the former Panther to step in alongside legendary half Johnathan Thurston. The combination has built considerably in recent weeks, and will be key again this Saturday if the Cowboys are to make it five wins for the season in Darwin.
The favourite: Like in most games this season, the Eels are friendless, with most backing behind the Cowboys.
My tip: While the returns of Hayne and Mannah are good news for Parramatta, the Cowboys' performance last week - even without Origin stars - showed they're starting to hit their straps (so to speak). They should do the job here as well. Cowboys by 22.